Soaring prison costs scrutinized

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – The dichotomy created by wanting to be tough on crime while holding down prison costs was front and center Tuesday at a state House hearing.
Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps told members of the House Judiciary B and Corrections committees that Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the country, and Mississippi inmates are locked up longer than the national average.
The two committees, which provide much of the oversight of the state’s criminal justice system, met to look at the rising costs of the state’s prison system.
“It doesn’t stop,” Epps said referring to studies of the growth in the state’s prison population. “… We don’t have a leveling off period at any period of time.”
Yet circuit judges and prosecutors complained to the joint committees about how quickly people were being released after being convicted and sentenced to prison.
Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon of Philadelphia referred to the criminal justice system as “a catch-and-release program.”
“A judge is supposed to impose a sentence, but that is not happening,” said Circuit Judge John Emfinger of Rankin County.
Judges said that because of new laws, people are being released by the Department of Corrections after serving a fraction of their sentence.
In the mid-1990s, Mississippi enacted “a truth in sentencing” law requiring all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Since then the budget for the Department of Corrections has exploded.
In recent years, the Legislature changed the law so that certain nonviolent offenders were required to serve only 25 percent of their sentence. And if inmates achieved certain goals in prison, such as education attainment, or were model prisoners, their time might be reduced more.
Gordon said many “were serving months of a year’s time.” He said that was not fair to the victims or society as a whole.
Between 1994 and 2012, the Mississippi prison population per 100,000 residents has increased 79 percent and the budget has soared 210 percent.
The Corrections budget for the current year is $339.9 million, but Epps has told legislators he will need a deficit appropriation of $29.6 million to finish the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
There are 22,167 inmates in custody as of Oct. 1. Another 40,000 are under supervision, either on probation or under house arrest.
Certain nonviolent offenders are eligible for house arrest, which costs $1,500 per year as opposed to $16,000 per year to lock someone up.
Despite the growing costs of the system, many legislators said they were not interested in looking for ways to hold down costs by letting people out of prison.
“It is time for the Legislature to give you the money you need,” Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, told Epps. “I am really not interested in turning somebody loose because we don’t have any money.”
But others argued that money should be spent on education programs that will lead to more productive citizens and keep people out of jail.
Epps said he agrees.
“Any money spent on education helps me,” he said.
In the meantime, the state must come to grips with a growing prison population and corrections budget. Epps said he already is worried that the state’s corrections officers are the lowest paid in the nation and a disproportionate number of them are females guarding male prisoners.
“I see trouble down the road,” he said.

State prison population
No. of inmates 22,095
Inmates per 100,000 population 742
Percent growth in inmates per 100,000 population since 1980 352
Percent growth in expenditures since 1980 1255

Click video to hear audio